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Review: iPhone hands on

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iPhone

iPhone. By now, it?s almost a house-hold name. My grandma knows what an iPhone is. But is Apple?s newest gizmo a functional daily device, or is it just another flash in the pan?

Instead of posting a review immediately after getting the phone, I decided to take my time with the device, learning and figuring out its little quirks and bugs; trying to discover as much as I could about iPhone usage. This isn?t an argument about whether or not the iPhone is a good or bad piece of equipment, nor is it a scrutiny over its specifications. This is an account of one person?s experience with iPhone.

To be quite honest, I started off not wanting an iPhone. I thought it was too flashy, too expensive, too ?upscale? for a guy like me. (The last thing I wanted to be was another haughty iPhone user!) So, I was going to get a Sidekick with my (then) carrier: T-mobile, because there were certain features I had to have on my next phone; namely internet, email, text messaging, and web browsing. But, while I was mulling over the capabilities over the Sidekick, I realized that for the price, the iPhone would have been a better deal. After careful consideration, I decided to cancel with T-mobile, and went down to my local Apple store to purchase my iPhone.

I opted for the 4GB iPhone simply because my 30GB iPod was my primary music source, and I had no intentions of using the iPhone as my sole music player. However, I do believe that this was a mistake on my part (learning, it?s a part of life!), and will elaborate on that in just a bit.

Activating the iPhone was a fairly easy experience. I simply plugged it in to my computer using the included USB cable (though any new generation iPod cable will work), and iTunes walked me through the steps to activate my phone. After creating my account and contract with AT&T, I was pretty much good to go! AT&T offers several different plans for the iPhone, but for my purposes, the basic plan was enough for me. It is also worth mentioning that every plan includes unlimited data (email, web browsing) which is excellent!

One thing about the activation that irked me was this: when I activated the phone, I lived in Hawaii, but wanted to maintain a Cincinnati (my hometown) area code. During the activation, AT&T automatically assigned me a Hawaiian area code without asking. To fix that, I had to go to an AT&T store, pick up a new SIM card (free of charge) and call AT&T to change my phone number and swap the SIM. It was a little frustrating, but AT&T was extremely helpful, and I was very impressed with their customer service.

Navigating through the iPhone?s touch screen was such a thrill! The screen was extremely responsive to my input, and I spent little time actually getting acclimated with using the touch method. Though, my biggest fear when first getting the phone was scratching or damaging the glass. I heard that the glass was extremely resilient, but didn?t want to take any chances with it, so I went out and got a nice case and screen cover for the phone. With my investment protected, I felt much more at ease when using it. When navigating through different applications, though, I was disappointed that there was no feature to go back to the main menu on the actual screen?s interface. The only way to get back to the main screen is to use the ?home? button, located right on the front of the phone. It isn?t a big deal, but was a ?back? button that difficult to implement?

After squaring away my phone number, I set about filling up my iPhone with music, videos, and pictures from my laptop. iTunes is fairly straight forward, and I can easily choose what pictures, music, videos, etc. to pull from. Syncing doesn?t take too long, but of course that?s going to depend on how much data you?re pushing to the phone. Because of my storage capacity, I decided that I would only take my most listened to albums with me. This is where the capacity comes into question. After awhile, I began to use the phone as an iPod more and more, as well as stored quite a few pictures and videos. If you have only a few gigs of music, it?s not a big deal, but when you have a large library of albums, you?re going to have to pick and choose what you take with you. To be quite honest, I wish I would have dropped an extra B. Frank on the 8 GB model.

Music using the iPod function sounds exactly like any new generation iPod. Manipulating it is very streamlined, though it seems like some features that should be there are omitted. For example, since the iPhone is not restricted to using a click-wheel, you would think that you?d be able to more easily sort through your songs using filters and the like. I?d like to scroll through with all my songs listed, but sorted by artist. Sadly, iPhone?s ?All Songs? lists your music in alphabetical order, with no way to sort them out. Or, if I want to listen to all the songs from an artist from all their albums, playing in the album?s order, I?m out of luck! It doesn?t seem like a difficult feature to add, but if you?ve got many different albums from various artists, you?ll have to go through and select the next album. This could be fixable through an update, however.

Apple must really stand by their peripheral products, because they obviously don?t want you to use any third party headphones. The port jack for headphones was designed to fit Apple?s earbuds, and a good portion of other headphones simply won?t fit. I have a really nice pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones that I?d like to use with the device, and I should be able to (they weren?t cheap), but I simply can?t due to a poor design choice. Several companies allow you to bypass this with an adapter that allows you to plug in other headphones; but the point is that I shouldn?t have to buy adapters to use headphones of my choice.

I?m a texter, hands down. I can?t get enough of it, its crack! And I was pleased to discover that texting on the iPhone is a (fairly) painless experience. Using the soft (on-screen) keyboard, you tap-tap-tap out your message and send it on its way. The text interface floored me; the text lines appear as little chat bubbles! Adding to that is the ability to swap between conversations you?re having with your contacts, akin to an instant messaging program. Attempting to type with the soft keyboard was difficult at first, but I got used to it quickly, and the error correction feature is fairly accurate and extremely helpful when cranking out messages quickly. Sadly, there is no copy/paste function, and if you have big fingers, you?ll more than likely have a harder time with the keypad. Tactile feedback, where are ye!? The last drawback with texting on the iPhone, as many know, is the lack of multimedia messaging. You?re telling me that I have this multimedia device, filled to the brim with pictures, videos, internet links, emails, and a camera, with no onboard feature to send them to another phone!? That isn?t an oversight, it?s just plain unacceptable.

One little trick with text messaging I?ve learned of is to use Teleflip to send emails as text messages (which is free, if you?ll recall). Doing this can drastically save on your allocated text messages each month (a measly 200!?), and here?s how to do it: simply create a new email message addressed to ##########@teleflip.com, where the #?s is the cell phone number you want the text to go to. Leave the subject blank, and type in your text in the body, and bam! The message is sent to Teleflip, which acts as a proxy server, sending the message to the recipient?s cell as a text! The best way to do this is to add the ##########@teleflip.com email address to the contacts you text the most, and you can easily pull it up when you?re sending out messages. Easy as pie, and almost as delicious!

Photography with the iPhone is a bit lackluster. The 2 megapixel camera is underpowered, missing some extremely useful features such as a flash, zoom, brightness, and contrast adjustment. It also would have been nice to be able to change to black and white, or sepia colored pictures. However, with the right lighting conditions, you can get some decent photo?s, but when do you always have that scenario? Viewing the pictures on the iPhone?s screen is easy on the eyes, and you can stretch or shrink the pictures to get a better view. Of course, pulling pictures off the phone is as easy as connecting it to your computer.

On a recent trip to San Francisco my digital camera was in storage, leaving me with just my trusty iPhone to bail me out. I took a deep breath and started snapping away, hoping my photos would come out well enough to recognize where I was. Thankfully, I underestimated the camera, and some of the results are below (click to see the full size image)!

San Fran1 San Fran2

Not too shabby, eh? I did find the camera awkward to use at times, as the button to snap a photo is another ?soft? button, so you get no tactile feedback whatsoever when taking a photo, and the shutter delays about a second, making some shots extremely difficult to take (self portraits, especially). I did find that if you hold the ?shoot? button until you want to take a picture, then let go of it, the camera will snap it, making it a little bit easier to shoot photo?s (but not by much). All in all, it seems like the camera was just thrown in because they had room to spare.

I was pleasantly surprised to find an applet for Youtube on my phone! The phenomenon that has taken over office cubicles and college dorms by storm is now available on the go! Finding videos is a cinch, and you can even bookmark your favorites to come back to later. Using the EDGE network to watch videos is slow, but bearable (for free, what do you expect?), and skimming off a WiFi connection drastically reduces load times. Actually viewing the videos, on the other hand, can be a crapshoot. If the video is in good quality, you?ll have little problems seeing what?s going on. However, on lesser quality videos, I found myself straining to see what I was actually watching. Not entirely useful, but fun nonetheless.

Had I a need to monitor stocks, I gladly would, but I haven?t the faintest clue how to play the market, and thus the Stocks applet is wasted on me. Updating it over the EDGE network doesn?t take long and you can easily pick which stocks to monitor through a search feature. So I?m just going to pass on this one.

The most useful feature, for me, is the Google Maps application. Having a direct and easy link to driving directions has kept me very found in a brand new city. Since moving to San Diego, I?ve used Google Maps more than any function on my phone, and it?s gotten me out of several binds where I just didn?t know where I was going. Also, on my recent trip to San Fran, GM helped me find not only the hotel we were staying at, but all the locations we were going to visit. Thankfully, the directions that it gives are fairly straight forward, unlike some other mapping websites I?ve used. The search function is pretty straight forward, and you can bookmark locations that you use frequently to view them or use for directions.

The weather application pulls its information from Yahoo! weather, and you just search for the cities you want to monitor. It?s fairly accurate, but if you live in a small town near a big city, sometimes the results can be skewed. It still lets me know when I need to bundle up and when shorts are appropriate. I have several cities set up on mine, as I like to monitor the weather in my hometown of Cincinnati. Again, when going on trips, this was very helpful.

The clock functions just like the weather app, allowing you to set up and monitor different time zones. I use it often to remind myself of when I can call home or my friends back in Hawaii. I also set up several alarms with different criteria, and sometimes utilize a stop watch feature with laps when I?m running.

Another helpful feature, I?ve found, is the notepad, which I use to scribble down notes and the like. I can create multiple pages and skim through them, and it does wonders for keeping me organized. I?m always making little ?to-do? lists which keep me in line.

Like most iPhone users, I often employ the Safari browser to keep boredom astray, as well as check specific information online. Not to mention, whenever I have a dispute amongst friends over trivia, the answer is always just a Google away. Surfing over EDGE can be tedious; like 56K tedious, but pages that aren?t intensive on visuals are usually pretty bearable. If you have a strong signal, then your browsing experience should be okay, but your best bet is always to try and connect to WiFi. It?s easy to use and has plenty of configuration options to suit the needs of any hotspot jumper. I?ve had some luck trying out Jiwire.com, an internet based search site that locates WiFi spots in your city. Very helpful!

As a talky device, the iPhone does pretty well. The ear piece seems a little muted, but once you learn how to angle the phone, it?s clear, and I have no problems using the phone. The speakerphone really shines; it?s the best I?ve ever used! Not only is audio from the speaker clear and concise, but speaking into it is crisp as well. Never have I had any complaints from people being on speaker phone (where as on my old phone, I always had people asking me what I just said) and I used to use it quite often. Used to, that is, until I got my hot little hands on the earpiece that Apple included with the phone. You see, I didn?t realize that the earbuds that comes with the phone had a built in mic that you could use to talk and control the phone. Upon learning this, that became my prime source of interface when using the phone. The mic works stupendously for as simple as it is, and picks up voice extremely well. And the best part is that it integrates seamlessly with the iPod application. So you?re listening to music and you get a call. Normally, a nightmare situation! Rest easy, friend, because the music will fade out and your phone will ring (in your ear). Clicking the mic with your finger (it?s a button!) once will answer the call, and pressing it again will hang out. Also, you can answer incoming calls while on the other line, and switch between the calls accordingly. Another nice feature is the ability to forward through songs by double clicking the button, or pausing by clicking once. Sadly, you can?t go to previous songs. Why not a triple click to go to a previous track? Irking?..but all in all, a very functional, simple device! The only drawback is the funny looks I get when people stare at the person talking to himself aloud while listening to what looks like an iPod. Meh, people will learn.

I?m not going to lie, after over a month with it, I really like the iPhone. For someone on the go a lot, it?s a great multifunctional device that not only keeps me informed and found, but entertained as well. It?s a bit of investment, and not for everyone, but it?s basically one of those things that you know you want it, or you know you don?t. It?s great, but not without its flaws. Some of them glaring, and might even make or break a sale, and some of them are negligible.

For some reason, Apple decided that allowing people to use their own music (most of which has been purchased, even through iTunes!) as ring tones would be a bad idea, and makes folks pay to use music they already own to use a ring tones. WTF? That?s really the only thing I can come up with. WTF. Granted, you can hack the phone and use your ring tones, but not everyone is tech savvy enough to do that. Any other phone that can play music can use the music as a ringtone, and the iPhone should be no exception. Absolute rubbish.

IPhone does a pretty good job syncing to your Internet Explorer (or the Mac equivalent web browser) and Messenger to gather your contacts and bookmarks, respectively, but offers no support for third party browsers and email, namely Firefox and Thunderbird. I don?t use IE and I don?t use Outlook or Messenger, am I to be punished by having to manually update my contacts? Pssh.

Another function I would have liked to have seen is the ability to connect to other iPhones nearby via Bluetooth (or even over WiFi) to share music, data files, or pictures. That would have been great stimulation to an already booming community for the iPhone, but sadly, this feature isn?t supported by unhacked phones. Apple, pick up that ball you guys dropped!

As I said before, I find it quite upsetting that a copy+paste function wasn?t included on the phone. This makes redundant entries even more tedious, especially long ones, like email addresses. Basic phones with half the features and technology of the iPhone have copy+paste, why not iPhone? This needs to be addressed! I?m especially curious as to why I can?t save documents and pictures I find on the web to the device. I have 4GB to spare! C?mon! And along those lines, the lack of MMS messaging on such a beautiful multimedia device should be considered a crime! It just makes you wonder what these guys were thinking!?

And my final gripe is with the rigidity of the phone with regards to how closed it is (without hacking). The phone has only one carrier (unhacked), and you can?t use any third party programs or software on it. RUBBISH! This phone has enormous potential which is being selfishly stifled by Apple (or so it would seem). Hacked, the phone can be put to better use, and I?ve even seen iPhones running Windows Parallels on it. Just imagine the possibilities with unlimited open-endedness! If you do choose to hack the phone, you have to do it with the original firmware, as the updated firmware, as of now, blocks you from doing so. But by hacking the phone, you can get some really nifty things out of it, but I can only recommend that to experienced techno-savvy folks.

All in all, as stated, it?s a great device with great potential, but unfairly limited at the moment. Even in its current state, the iPhone is an extremely useful tool, but there are other phones that can do most, if not all, of the things iPhone can do, but very few do all of them better. But in the end, it?s still functional, flashy, and the new hip thing. Is it really for you? In my most honest opinion is to wait it out if you can. Apple?s trend is to release hardware, develop a better piece of that hardware and release it not to long after. Expect to see greater capacity iPhones very soon (the 4 GB has already been discontinued!) with possibly even more functions (better network card!). Unless you?ll die tomorrow without iPhone, it won?t hurt to wait for a superior model.

R/

Chris

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